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Comment > Love Thy Neighbour: Sheila Canning by Carol Ann Wood

What A Sheila! When Sheila Canning, played by the fabulous Colette Mann, first appeared on Ramsay Street, I have to admit I wasn’t immediately taken with her. There, I’ve said it. I initially thought Kyle’s grandmother an annoying, interfering woman, and wondered why she felt the need to come along and start telling him how to live his life, and whom to date.

But I soon gleaned that there was more to Sheila than being interfering. So, where to start? Sheila’s character has many sides to it, and although she is a bit of a sticky-beak, she is also kind, compassionate, funny, and a wonderful example of a matriarch in action. The softer side of Sheila was revealed when we learnt that she’d not had the best of relationships with her children. Her daughter Naomi had been involved in relationships with unsuitable men. When Sheila had found out that one such man was married, she told his wife about the affair, and Naomi became estranged from her mum as a result of this meddling. Naomi’s brother Gary was apparently a feckless smalltown layabout who’d shot through. Viewers could tell that Sheila had regrets about her children and that she probably felt partly responsible for the way they’d turned out, even if she didn’t openly admit to it. She had gone some way to make up for this feeling of failure, by raising her grandson Kyle after his father had left. And evidently, she hadn’t had had much choice, given that Kyle’s mother Sharon was not a responsible parent either.

Sheila was probably lonely when she arrived in Ramsay Street, and also thought that Kyle needed guidance so that he didn’t turn out like Gary. So this very blonde, very bubbly, very floral and very forthright lady was not going to be a brief encounter for the residents of Erinsborough. Within a few weeks of watching her clip clopping across the street in her court shoes, I found myself thinking that she was the best new female character on the show in a long while. Soon enough, Sheila’s antics had me in hysterics, and my husband, who doesn’t follow the show, is often party to my giggles from the next room. He knows that when this happens, Neighbours is having a ‘Sheila moment’.

Sheila is one of those people who is hilarious without realising it. For starters, she sees others, such as Susan Kennedy, as sticky-beaks, yet doesn’t recognise this trait in herself! Most of us probably know a real-life Sheila, at whom we might roll our eyes and remark, “Oh dear, whatever will she do next!” The writers, and Colette, have done a fantastic job of relaying this to the viewers. She manages to get herself into some tricky, often inadvisable situations. Because Sheila does whatever she thinks is right at the time, and if that means taking risks to protect her loved ones, she’ll do it. She manages to wriggle out of many an escapade without repercussions. She’s the kind of person who can talk her way out of trouble, much to the irritation of others around her who don’t possess the same skill.

When it suits her, Sheila is not above playing up to the role of vulnerable older woman. Especially since her heat attack. Her ‘near-faints’ are priceless, when she uses them to get her own way. Including the best choice of cake from the Erinsborough festival, when she persuaded Harold that she needed to eat so that she didn’t pass out. When Sheila puts on that simpering voice, we’re reminded of drama-queens we know in real life. I always think of my Nanna, who had a ‘telephone voice’ which was very false. I understand from reading an interview with Colette that the writers trust her to interpret this aspect of Sheila’s personality – which she has perfected: Colette, acting as Sheila, putting on an act.

Sheila’s spats with Lou Carpenter have been a joy to watch. I am personally glad that the writers chose to keep them as friends, rather than them becoming a couple. Sometimes it’s good to include a scenario where two people never cross that line, even though their relationship has the classic elements of love-hate chemistry. Lou’s barbed comments about Sheila’s dancing at Matt and Lauren’s wedding vow renewal had her huffing and puffing, her infamous pout forming. And you knew that she would get her revenge. Here we have two people who will always want to get the better of one another and have the last word.

Sheila also has a love-hate relationship with her boss, Paul Robinson. She realises, especially with hindsight after Ezra Hanley’s brief reign as Lassiter’s hotel owner, that Paul may be an annoying ‘moneybags’ but she has managed to tease a little bit of softness out of him. And knowing what we do of Paul Robinson, that’s no mean feat! She doesn’t, nevertheless, see him as husband material for Naomi, and has gone to great lengths to keep the two apart. Currently, we don’t know where this storyline is going, but let’s just say that – should Sheila’s ongoing plan not work, and Paul and Naomi become a permanent item – we can expect more shenanigans from our Sheila.

I have two favourite comedy story-lines involving Sheila, which I could happily re-watch numerous times, knowing that they will always make me laugh. One is the night she and Paul inadvertently spent in the cold store at the Water Hole. All because ‘Moneybags’ had ignored Sheila’s nagging that the door of the store needed fixing. And on checking up on Sheila’s stocktaking, he closed the dodgy door, trapping them inside. As I watched Paul and Sheila resort to huddling together for warmth, the the chorus of Cornershop’s Brimful Of Asha springs to mind: ‘Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow’. Even when it’s Sheila Canning’s bosom that’s giving the comfort. And it got even funnier when Sheila had the bright idea of using cling film to insulate them. This was Neighbours comedy gold. There were also poignant moments: what would two people do when they’re trapped together – literally – in a cold store for the night and wonder if they’ll succumb to hypothermia? They’d talk. And Sheila and Paul certainly talked. When they were rescued in the morning, they shared a moment of private laughter. I felt then that Sheila and Paul’s relationship had shifted very slightly. They had both seen a different side to one another, even though you could guess that they’d never speak of it again, and in public would soon be back to their usual selves!

My other favourite Sheila moment was that dream. It was probably the most surreal, silly scene since Bouncer the dog’s dream all those years ago. Sheila had read Karl Kennedy’s novel The Book Of Secrets which the residents suspected was loosely-based on people in the street. But, at the time, Sheila believed its author was Lou. And so, she dreamt of Lou, and of Paul, which disturbed her. What did it mean? This was such a treat for the lovers of classic Neighbours comedy. If you’d had a bad day when this episode was aired, it provided the perfect antidote.

Another unforgettable ‘Sheila moment’ was when Lauren had asked Matt to pose for her art class, in the belief that she would be the only artist present. When I heard that this storyline was coming up – I don’t normally read spoilers but as a huge fan of Matt, I couldn’t resist – I just knew that, somehow, a few other people would end up being there, and that one of them would be Sheila. Sheila, bless her, has a penchant for being a cougar, (at least, in her mind) and wouldn’t miss the chance to see one of the local constabulary in the buff. The scene was wonderfully acted. Matt (Josef Brown) had beads of sweat on his brow as he stood there in just a towel, realising to his horror that several female residents of the street were about to see him au naturel. The camera panned to Sheila: Now, as any artist knows, positioning the pencil for perspective is normal practice. But the way Sheila waved her pencil somehow made it hilarious. You didn’t need dialogue to see what was going through this minx’s mind. And she clearly picked up on Matt’s nervousness and played up to it for all she was worth.

Sheila even did what many other females on Ramsay street haven’t, but might love to: Snogged Mark Brennan. The shocked look on his face as he managed to break free said ‘did she really just do that?!’ She had done so primarily in order to stop Mark chatting up a girl in the bar, because Sheila was sure that Naomi was the one for Constable Brennan. But you couldn’t help think she she had been waiting for the flimsiest of excuses to lock lips with the cop. Sheila is incorrigible! Sheila’s vulnerability has also been portrayed well. Her aforementioned flawed relationship with two of her children has pained her. Largely, she and Naomi have resolved their differences, but the fact of their personalities means that the two will always clash. I was pleased when Sheila stopped blaming Naomi for her father’s fatal heart attack. We were told that Frank doted on his daughter and spoilt her, and was greatly disappointed when she begun a relationship with an older, married man. We could see that Sheila would have to learn to let go of bitter feelings of resentment in order to mend her relationship with Naomi. She will, however, always want to have her say in Naomi’s chequered love-life. She successfully managed to steer her away from her pursuit of Toadie, and thus avoid a repeat of the past. Luckily it was easier this time around, as Toadie, despite forming a friendly bond with Naomi, wasn’t about to commit adultery.

Sadly for Sheila, she wasn’t able to mend any fences with son Gary. You got a sense that where Gary was concerned, she was in denial. No mother wants to admit that her child has turned out to be a ‘bad egg’ and she had probably always hoped that one day, he would see the error of his ways and return as the prodigal son. Naomi referred to him as ‘the golden child’ and obviously felt angry that Sheila could not see through his guise. Naomi had also kept the truth about Gary’s past a secret from Sheila. And when Gary turned up in Erinsborough after being tracked down by Georgia, he was happy to continue letting his mother believe that he’d played no part in the robbery in Frankston.

Sheila’s ultimate learning of Gary’s lies was hard to watch. How must it feel to face the fact that your son abandoned his family to save himself? And then, after his return and subsequent promise to stay out of trouble, he had acted as Paul Robinson’s heavy man, beating up Ezra Hanley. The realisation that he hadn’t changed led to Sheila’s heart attack. I was greatly relieved when Sheila recovered and in what seemed like no time at all – real-time for Erinsborough – she was back behind the bar of the Waterhole, chatting, gossiping, advising, and being the Sheila we have come to know and love.

Sheila is such a strong character that I can envisage many more great story lines being written for her. I would relish a scene where Sheila reminisces about her teenage years. I imagine it going something like this: A girl’s night out and a few drinks in, the older women of Erinsborough start getting competitive about their misspent youth. Sheila would be the perfect character to relive her escapades from the 1960s. I see Sheila telling the others about going to the local dances in her mini skirts, with a beehive hairdo. I see Sheila telling them of the time she had to climb out of a restroom window in order to escape the advances of an undesirable man. And probably getting stuck half-in half-out, knowing her.

That I’m able to imagine Sheila being young is an example of how Colette has made the character so believable. We see the whole Sheila, not just one side of her, and we can understand her emotions, even if we do cringe at her sometimes. If Ramsay Street were real, and I was a resident, I would always look for Sheila to buck me up and to give me a few down-to-earth words of advice, no matter how bossy she is. I’d be cheered by her kindness, and reassured by her presence. Everyone needs a Sheila to turn to when they’re down.

I could recount many more enjoyable scenes involving Sheila, but I’d never finish this article! Recently, we got so see her dressed as Dolly Parton at Paige’s fancy dress party, which just seemed perfect. And Sheila being frustrated when silenced by lockjaw was an ingenious scripting. (Imagine what Lou will say if he gets to hear of it!) Colette, we salute you and thank you for the way that you bring such a vibrant character to life. I hope we will be watching Sheila Canning for a long time to come. For me and, I imagine, for many other fans, she is definitely my ‘bosom for a pillow’ when I settle down to watch my favourite soap.

This article originally appeared on Carol's blog, Levelling The Playing Field.